The movement to reform animal agriculture has reached a tipping point

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The COVID-19 pandemic has cracked open animal agriculture’s bucolic façade, revealing giant agribusinesses that control and exploit animals, farmers and workers, and threaten food safety. But the abuses occurring on factory farms and at slaughterhouses may just be the breaking point the food and farming movement needs for advocates to align and finally achieve true systemic change.

In the past six months, the public has read stories about COVID-19 outbreaks and worker safety failures in slaughterhouses; how the crowded, stressful and unsanitary conditions on factory farms are breeding grounds for future pandemics; and reports of healthy animals brutally “depopulated” in huge numbers. While large corporations were buying ads telling the American public that the nation was precariously close to a nationwide meat shortage, pushing workers to toil in unsafe conditions, and contributing to panicked hoarding at the supermarket, they were also quietly exporting millions of pounds of meat abroad. There was no shortage — just an artificial crisis that put animals and people in harm’s way. But while the industrial agriculture system faltered and engaged in reckless tactics to regain footing, independent, regionally-based farmers rose to meet consumers’ needs across the country.

This month, more than 250 diverse groups came together to support visionary, comprehensive federal legislation called the Farm System Reform Act (FSRA), which offers a roadmap for overhauling industrial animal agriculture. The FSRA, introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and in the House by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), would phase out the largest, most harmful and most polluting factory farms (also known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs), and would support farmers’ transitions to higher welfare methods of animal rearing, and sustainable agriculture. It would help break the vice-grip of a handful of multinational companies that currently wield tremendous power over every link in the food chain, controlling farmers’ livelihoods, animals’ treatment, and consumers’ safety and choice.

The Farm System Reform Act has won broad support from this diverse coalition of organizations — including advocates for workers’ rights, faith-based initiatives, animal welfare, environmental protection, sustainable agriculture and social justice — because we have reached a tipping point.

According to a survey by Lake Research Partners, 76 percent of people are concerned about what is happening on industrial factory farms, which contribute to climate change and exploit farmers, animals and workers in favor of higher profits. Billions of animals suffer on factory farms each year, unable to carry out even their most basic natural behaviors in crowded, cruel conditions. More importantly, three quarters of U.S. consumers think the government should actively support farmers in the transition away from factory farming and towards more humane and resilient farming systems.

The scale of industrial animal agriculture and the suffering it causes is perhaps matched only by the fortitude and commitment of the countless advocates who work to combat factory farming every day. The urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the food and farming movement to come together to advocate for a shared vision of a better farming system — one that prioritizes the wellbeing of all those involved, including rural communities, consumers, farmers, farm workers, animals and the environment. Congress must act today and pass the Farm System Reform Act.

Wenonah Hauter is founder and executive director of Food & Water Watch and Daisy Freund is vice president of Farm Animal Welfare for the ASPCA.

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